Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three Books To End November (#s 64,65 & 66)

This cold has lingered, and actually rendered me quite useless yesterday, which meant I did a lot of reading (and watching of movies). I finished Mo Hayder's latest Walking Man novel, Skin (it's excellent), Anne Giardini's enjoyable Advice for Italian Boys, and Twilight (note the lack of adjective).

#64 - Skin

Mo Hayder's writing scares the living bejeezus out of me. She writes excellent mysteries that keep you guessing to the very end. This book picks up right where Ritual ends, picking up the threads of the story just a couple days after Flea Marley and Jack Caffrey solve the muti case they were working on. There's a serial killer in this book who will send shivers up and down your spine, and the twists and turns that the book takes will no doubt have you shouting, "No!" as much as I did. Mo Hayder's writing's as addictive as her stories are -- once I started this book, I didn't put it down until I was finished. There's a lovely image of Flea in the middle of the book feeling as if the sky is pressing down on her -- squeezing all of the air out of her lungs -- and the passage was just so perfect, so indicative of Hayder's simple prose powers, that even if the book had stopped there I would have been satisfied.

#65- Advice for Italian Boys
Full disclosure -- I interviewed Anne Giardini for work the other day and had managed to read half the book before sitting down to talk to her (it was a REALLY busy week). Let's keep in mind that Ms. Giardini's a CEO of a giant company in her day job as I tell this story.

1. I forgot the battery to my recorder. And had to race back to my desk to get them.

2. Then I put said battery in upside down and had to fight with it to get the little thingy back open to switch it over.

3. I turned it on and set it down in front of her and started the interview. But I didn't press RECORD. So we had to start the whole interview over again after I realized that I wouldn't have a single note because I was relying on the audio... Sigh.

Regardless, she's lovely, and talks how she writes -- in long, luxurious sentences. The novel loosely follows the almost coming of age of Nicolo, a twenty-something Italian-Canadian man whose trying to find his way in the world. He still lives at home, works at the gym, and hasn't quite had a significant relationship with the opposite sex. The middle child (in between two Enzos), Nicolo has a very special relationship to his advice-spilling Nonna, whose sayings pepper the story and the text with old-world common sense. Giardini said that she wanted to write a book about a good man, a man who isn't without conflict, but one who at his core has a moral centre that's just right. She accomplishes this, and it's a breezy, delightful novel that presents the picture of a lovely family that you'd be happy sitting down and sharing a meal with -- and damn, I'd bet the food would be fantastic.

#66 - Twilight
I finished it. And that's all I'm going to say. More to come via our Undeath Match next week.

TRH Movie - The Road

We had saved up our entertainment budget and put our Air Miles to good use (movie passes) so my RRHB said, "why don't we go to the movies." At first, he wanted to go see 2012, and then he actually read the reviews. Looking up showtimes, I noticed that The Road was screening at the Queensway, so I suggested we see that instead -- it took a little convincing. It's honestly one of our favourite books -- and that doesn't happen often. We have drastically different taste in reading material.

This film has so many things working in its favour: excellent source material, Viggo Mortensen, a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and a director, John Hillcoat, who has a bit of a track record (he directed The Proposition). All the pieces are there, but the film doesn't quite reach its potential. It's too long, and the liberties that they take to adapt it to the screen didn't quite work for me.

Let's pause for a moment because by no means is this a bad film. Quite the opposite, actually, it's a very good film. I just wanted it to be a great film (and so did A.O. Scott).

So, let's start with the positives -- Viggo Mortensen plays the Man, the narrator, the father who takes his only child on the road after the apocolypse, consistently heading south because it means survival. He's excellent: nuanced when necessary, protective, angry, solid, and worthy of the role. The young fellow (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who plays the son was good too -- and the pair, worked significantly well together. There's a lovely balance to the film, don't get me wrong, the story is heartbreaking, between the son who only knows this ravished world and the father who still remembers aspects of what it was like before the cold. The two of them work this contradiction exceptionally well.

For the most part, it's a faithful adaptation of the novel. But there are Hollywood elements that I wasn't sure the story needed: the history of the man's relationship to the boy's mother (played by Charlize Theron), a strange trip back to his childhood home (did I miss that from the book?), and cemented the ending.

In a way, it's these very "movie"-like parts that kind of ruined the film for me -- I wanted more The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and we got a little too much of a film like Gerry. I felt the book deserved something a little more stylized, a little less Hollywood, and a little more reflective of McCarthy's book. More varied dialogue between the two would have helped. It wasn't to be done away with as a minor part of the book sacrificed as a means to pump up the action so the movie could be more broad-reaching. They tended to repeat the same conversations over and over again -- and I remember this differently in the book. The film could have been shorter too -- that's one of the things that I admire about McCarthy's writing -- it's effective because it's so sparse.

One thing about the picture that's utterly worth raving about is the art direction. It's sobering to see the remnants of our civilization laid to waste and even more so to see humanity loose its essence as food becomes increasingly sparse. The whole film feels bathed in this greyish light, burned out fields where trees used to stand, garbage everywhere, stuff that people hold tight to becomes meaningless if you can't eat it -- strands of pearls are stepped on and over and money blows around like paper. The film looks amazing. Truly. Like I said, it's a good picture, totally worth seeing in the theatre, and wholly deserving (fingers crossed) of its Oscar potential.

But, holy crap were there knuckleheads in the theatre with us. It was packed but I'm not sure people knew what film they were seeing. Or taking their teenagers too? Wha? I know! One family left twenty minutes in and the kid beside me was half-asleep before the film ever really started. When the movie was over, the group of drunken middle-agers in front of us stood up and said, "Well, they sure were spare on the action in that weren't they?" I honestly wanted to ask them if they'd even heard of the book, but I held my tongue. Sort of...

Monday, November 23, 2009

TRH Movie - New Moon

Oh, be ready to throw the tomatoes at me, yes, I spent hard-earned money to go see New Moon for our Undeath Match. Luckily, I was accompanied by someone (Rachel) who both saw the cheese potential (so bad it's good) and has a similar penchant for some good, old girlie fun. But, wow, is this film ever bad.

Like, really, really bad.

Shame on you EW for giving it a B+. And shame on all you CinemaScore peeps for coming out of the film and handing over an average of A-.

For anyone living under a rock, a soppy teenage girl (Bella Swan, what a stupid name) is abandoned by her mother (awesome role model there) who got remarried and shipped her off to Forks, WA to be reared by her silent but sturdy father (town sheriff, natch), falls in love with a "smoldering" perma-teenage vampire (Edward Cullen). They swoon. They stare into one another's eyes. And by the end of Twilight, they were actually an honest to goodness couple -- chaste even by Mormon standards -- but a couple nonetheless. Enter New Moon and all the horrible metaphors that title implies.

Open Scene: It's Bella's birthday. Of course, no one's allowed to give her presents (because teenage girls just HATE stuff), and no one listens to her. Yawn. There's a party at the Cullen Manor and she gets a paper cut. Oh, the blood! It's so hard for the vampires to resist. Why? Because they're vampires, that's what they do, they suck the blood. Yawn. Edward decides that it's over, for Bella's own good. Because Bella, for the love of Pete, has no mind of her own. He leaves. She dies inside and suffers from an almost life-ending depression coupled with sweat-stained, sheet-scrunching nightmares.

Enter buffed up buddy Jacob who glides in with the cheesiest wig to end all wigs and abs to rival Tim Riggins. He's the only one who can pull Bella out of her post-Edward coma. They build motorcycles together because she needs to live on the "edge." Why? Oh, because that's when Spectral Edward shows up to tell her what to do. Again, why? Because Bella has no brain nor mind of her own. Quadruple yawn. Oh, and Jacob's a werewolf. Did I forget to mention that? Because all of her boyfriends are supernatural. She's just that special.

Jake and Bella bond. He wants more but there's a treaty in play, blah vampires versus werewolves, blah de blah. Edward moan, groan, moan. And I'm already tired of recapping the plot so let me just cut to a list of why this movie sucked so much I would have walked out if I was there by myself:

1. Why can't teenagers have fun? Even a little? Why are they always pouting and acting all angrily and not doing anything remotely like regular kids?

2. Seriously, shut up Edward.

3. Bella stands in a meadow (even though a terrible red-headed vampire named Victoria is hunting her) alone as a dread-locked vamp says, "I'm going to kill you, okay?" She sort of shrugs and doesn't move. Let's repeat that, she does NOT MOVE. She just waits for Edward to come and save her but because he's convinced being together would put her in too much danger, he's nowhere to be found. Wha? Run little girl, run. Fight, kick, scream, just do something other than pout cross-eyed at the damn man.

4. Again, even when he's not on screen I want Edward to shut up. Spectral Edward should have a sock shoved in his fog-inducing ass.

5. What happened to quality role models for girls? Where's Judy Blume when you need her? Where's Nancy Drew or Andie or Jo? Bella mopes around because of a boy, abandons her friends, who don't even say WTF when she decides to start talking to them again, abandons both school and her parents to run off at the very slight chance she'll even see Edward, and only acts when it relates to a boy (Edward or Jacob). She is consistently needing to be saved. She never, ever saves herself. And when they both say, "oh we can't be together because you might get hurt or I might hurt you," she curls up into a little ball and does a fat lot of nothing.

6. So, the whole wolf pack runs around with no shirts and cut-off pants. But when they change, what happens to the pants? The werewolves aren't wearing them and they're not flopping around anywhere on the ground. They magically disappear and then magically appear when they turn back. Those are some magical pants. Who cares about continuity when you have Taylor Lautner's abs?

7. Shut up Edward.

8. If Bella's dad's supposed to be a cop, and a good cop at that, how come he never notices a) her boyfriends all have freaky eyes and often walk around all the time without shirts and b) that they're supernatural? Hasn't he lived in Forks his entire life and isn't one of his closest friends a Native American?

9. The first movie sucked, but at least there was a cheese factor that made it kind of hilarious. That first moment when Edward sparkles, priceless. Here, they're all dour and angry -- pushing and pulling each other with no payoff.

10. The whole Team This or Team That is just dumb. Even though Edward got his ass kicked by the strange Michael Sheen headed cult thingy, Bella's so obviously in love with him (and if you've read the spoilers and/or the books) you know what happens. In fact, it doesn't matter what happens because it's all filler anyway -- it's a road block in between the happy ending. The story's been told a million times. However, IF I were to pick a side (and no serious, book-loving, 30-something woman has any right to even be talking about this), I'd have to go with Jacob. I know he has no chance but, let's face it, Edward got his pasty-emo handed right back to him in that (SPOILER) battle toward the end, and rightly so. The werewolves, as goofy as they are running around the forest in basically their underwear, can truly fight. That was the best part of the film, actually. The wolves battling it out and ripping the heads of the vampires. Pretty, pretty awesome. But don't tell Kimberly I said that.

11. SHUT UP, Edward.

I've been reading Twilight and I doubt I'll review it here -- what can I possibly say. Everyone knows the writing is horrible. It's akin to the worst stuff I've ever read in some of the worst creative writing classes I've attended. She tells way more than she shows, Meyer has never met a useless, moronic detail she didn't like, and, other than the setting, which I quite like, she breaks taboos that undermine the merit (if any) of her work. The struggle to be good, to be in love, all that good, juicy teenage stuff makes for good ingredients but what she cooks up couldn't be any more contrived if she tried. And yet, she's sold millions and millions of books. Let's just hope she's using some of her royalties for good and re-planting some of the trees she's destroyed over the years. It's like Stephen King pointed out, at least J.K. Rowling can write, you know?

Friday, November 20, 2009

#ShortcoversFail

Last week I was excited to try Shortcovers -- I've been reading manuscripts and classics on my Sony eReader for over a year, and now wanted to try to buy new content from a source that made it easy to transfer from device to device. Shortcovers promises this is easy. And let's keep in mind that I am not one to be afraid of technology. But many, many things went wrong:

1. On my way home from The Giller Light, I thought -- "cool, I'll download the winner (The Bishop's Man) to my blackberry and start reading it tonight." No such luck, I searched and searched, and couldn't find the book. #shortcoversfail.

2. The next day I thought, "it's got to be there now," as I searched for The Bishop's Man again. There it was, kudos to Shortcovers for having it up quickly. When I clicked, I got a message that I needed to buy this book. "Sure," I thought, and clicked to buy. I entered my credit card information. "This is not a valid credit card." I did it again. And again. And again. And again. It. Would. Not. Work. #shortcoversfail.

3. Then, Friday as I was tidying up my office, I dusted off my Sony eReader (I haven't been reading a pile of books electronically in the last little while), plugged it in and thought, "okay, I'll buy the books from Shortcovers, dump them on my eReader, and then transfer them to my blackberry." Logon to Shortcovers, buy The Bishop's Man and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and download them to my Adobe Digital Editions. Adobe Digital Editions says, "here they are!" And I can see the books. Next step, "plug in your reader and it'll automatically recognize it." Nope. I followed all the steps and for the life of me could not get my reader to pick up the Shortcovers content; this might not be their fault -- apparently I might need to update my Sony interface but because I'm at work, I don't have adminstrative capabilities for my laptop, I couldn't do that. #shortcoversfail.

4. Back to my blackberry. Apparently, once you've bought the books they should automatically download onto your phone because they're paid for. No. They don't. Oh, I can get the sample chapters but I've paid for the whole book -- not just the sample chapters. Nothing happened automatically nor was there a single useful "help" section that could be of assistance. Also, there's no phone number, just those annoying email customer service forms. #shortcoversfail.

5. Now, I've got two great books, both I'm dying to read digitally marooned on my laptop at work with no way of getting them anywhere else and feel like I've wasted $25.00. I HATE wasting $25.00. And what's worse -- I want the content, I want to be able to read it in both places, I want it to work. #shortcoversfail.

Anyone have any suggestions?

#63 - Nocturnes

Even before finishing the first story in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, I had a sinking feeling that I shouldn't have started another book of short stories so soon after finishing Too Much Happiness. Overall, Nocturnes reads and feels like a bridge -- not a structure that connects two pieces of land, but that instrumental section in a song that marks a transition. The entire book feels like something Ishiguro has written in between major works. I missed the exacting, perfectly balanced narrative from Never Let Me Go, and had a hard time believing the characters in many of these stories. In places, the dialogue seemed forced, pitched in because it needed to be there and not because organic and/or interesting things were happening within the scene. And two of the middle stories were so, I don't know, cliched and almost forced, that I almost didn't finish the book. The last story, as I detail below, was a saving grace.

Sometimes, stories about music and the people who play and/or create it, never capture the true essence of the experience. You always feel as though it's not real -- the bands are made up, the musicians are made up, even when the author uses actual music to ground the story in some form of reality. In a sense, a lot of these stories read like those "ripped from the headlines" episodes of Law and Order where they take a real scene, Puff Daddy and J-Lo involved in a shoot out at a club, use no-name actors and tack on a murder to take the whole drama up a notch. Overall, this collection felt a bit like that, not utterly authentic, and I was disappointed because I firmly believe Ishiguro to be one of the world's best living writers.

The first story, "Crooner," follows a young guitar player who has emigrated from an Eastern block country to Italy where he's making a living. He meets a very famous singer, a kind of "great one" who came up in the days when crooning lead to fortunes being made in Vegas at a time when the original Ocean's Eleven was released into theatres. The aging crooner hires the young guitarist to accompany him as he serenades his wife. The performance, for many reasons is bittersweet, but the contract between the young and the old, their very different lives, what the crooner meant to the young man (who grew up with his mother listening to all of his albums), is poignant. Things are never as they seem, lives are never what they appear, and music doesn't always have the meaning it suggests.

The other three, and especially "Come Rain or Come Shine," are somewhat forgettable. There's a ridiculous element to that particular story ("Come Rain or Come Shine") that I didn't find believable, and despite liking the main character, a fellow who teaches English in Spain (who's kind of trapped in this transitory life), not a single secondary moved beyond a level of caricature. The tenuous connection to music wasn't enough to keep me interested in the mess the this fellow finds himself in as he visits two, married, university friends. Yet, even when I don't find the situation or the characters particularly engaging, I can still respect Ishiguro's talent -- a bad Ishiguro story is still better than most. There just didn't seem to be enough emotional consequence in any of the stories to keep me interested throughout the read.

The other story worth mentioning, the very last piece in the book, "Cellists," that was, by far, my favourite of the five. A young cellist starting me make his way in the world finds himself a teacher in an American tourist. They develop a deep and lasting teacher/student relationship over the course of a summer. She's running away from a relationship she can't quite decide if she wants to be in or not, and he's trying desperately to live up to both his talent and his potential. They each take something different from one another: she believes she's a genius, like him, and he believes his work is getting better simply through the power of her words, her explanations of what's wrong with his playing.

The narrator of this story, a bandmate and friend of the cellist, tells the story with a detached sense of wonder, in a way -- he sees the cellist years later, better dressed, nicely groomed, and is reminded of the strange summer they spent together. The last paragraph of the story might just be the best of the entire book -- it's pitch perfect in its assessment of both what happened to the cellist and how potential, or any kind of gift really, can easily slip away. It was utterly, heartbreakingly, authentic.

READING CHALLENGES: Ishiguro was born in Japan (even though he's lived in the UK since he was 5 or something), so I'm counting it as Around the World in 52 Books, which might just bring me to, oh, five books read for that challenge this year. Pathetic!

Monday, November 16, 2009

#62 - Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro has the ability to describe in one sentence what would take lesser writers paragraph upon paragraph to explore. She can disintegrate a years-long relationship in a sentence and it never feels jarring to the reader. She explores the essence of human experience in a way that highlights the aching, pressure-cooker way that people relate to one another. Nothing seems easy in Munro's world, yet it doesn't seem overtly melodramatic or necessarily posed to be dramatic. It's her innate skill to highlight the utter randomness of life and it's inherent losses. Secrets that are taken to people's graves. Lovers that ruin marriages. Short story writers that present a different view of a shared time period. It all sounds so cliche -- like the worst of Hollywood's blockbusters (yawn 2012). Yet at the deft hand of Munro these experiences are concise, cutting and often heartbreaking.

Of the 10 stories in the collection, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite. The novel-like depth of the title story, "Too Much Happiness," its ironic title, its compelling heroine (novelist-slash-mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky), was the weightiest in terms of page count, and somewhat unlike the other stories in the collection with its historical, non-Canadian setting. The day-to-day structure of Kovalevsky's life was in clear contrast to her academic life. In a way, the more successful she was at her work (regardless of how that success plays out in terms of stature), the less her personal life seemed in order. Regardless, Munro's story charges forward, driving home until its sad conclusions (I hope that's not a spoiler).

The underlying irony behind the entire collection, the idea that happiness, in its most cliched, Hollywood form, doesn't exist. The people in Munro's stories are content. They move forward in their lives because there's nothing else but to do -- and yet the existence of happiness haunts them all, from the young woman who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy, to the music teacher-slash-hippie-slash-performer. Each of the stories pulls you into a certain precise moment of human bliss, whether it's the birth of a child, a problem solved, or comfort in a marriage. And then, without being content to have her characters simply enjoy these moments, Munro pulls them out of their reverie, even if it's an everyday kind of thing, and puts them through the tough times. The opposite of happiness. Where survival means life has changed and change, coping or not coping with it, remains an integral part in what makes us human.

There's a scene in "Dimensions" that will haunt me forever -- it's a visceral, unthinking reaction that her character has to the horrible events going on around her. And there's moment in "Wenlock Edge" where the narrator describes another woman's hair (blonde) as a colour that always meant cheap to her (I'm paraphrasing terribly here; my copy of the book has been leant to a friend). Both of these small, tight sentences that appear not in the end, but in the middle of these two stories, are indicative of the power of Munro's work. I've been thinking about them for days. And once I get my book back I'll add the proper quotes (how's that for a lame review).

Masterful yet never manipulative, Munro gives you happiness, and its consequences, in its many forms in this collection. Take your own human heart with you as you read, realizing that it might be broken a little bit long the way.

READING CHALLENGES: Too Much Happiness is book four for this year's Canadian Book Challenge.

Monday: A Reading List

Our email is down at work for the moment and that means it's oddly quiet in terms of the interwebs. So, I'm stealing, "It's Monday! What Are You Reading?" from Jonita who participates in the original meme? idea? post? from J. Kaye's blog.

Books I Completed This Week Are: Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

Books I'm Currently Reading: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (ereader), Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (for The Undeath Match), The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a toss-up which ones I'll actually finish this week.

What's Up Next?: Goodness, gracious me, I have no idea. Let's see what I finish above first of all.

What are you all reading?

Friday, November 13, 2009

#61 - The Human Stain

I'm not keeping any secrets here when I admit that I had a really, really hard time reading American Pastoral. In fact, I would say I was very anti-Philip Roth after finishing that novel. Never wanted to read another of his books again. Openly gave my copy of The Human Stain the stink-eye for littering my TBR shelf. Yet, I'm also addicted to lists (for reasons I'm still trying to work out, seriously, in therapy), and decided to give it a shot -- after all, I didn't hate the film, and I really liked the beginning of the book when it landed on my desk about four years ago.

Fast forward a few years. As I'm trying to clear off my shelves before bringing any more new books into the fold, I took The Human Stain OFF the giant TBR shelf and moving it to the bedside table. And am I ever glad that I did (how many of my book reviews start out this way? With my preconceived and often wrong perspectives of the various books on my shelves?).

In short, I loved this book.

Honestly.

I did.

The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman "Silky" Silk, a semi-retired Classics professor is forced into full retirement over the disgrace after using the word "spooks" (meant as ghosts; read as racist). The novel's narrator, a writer who hides up in the hills of this small Massachusetts town, slowly reveals the deep, and shaded, history of this broken man. An odd friendship between the two develops as Coleman's disgrace becomes at once both unbearably personal and utterly absurd at the same time. No one, least of all the woman who was married to him for years, and who subsequently died during the whole fiasco, knows the truth about the man -- (and if you've seen the movie this isn't a spoiler, if you haven't then SPOILER) that he's actually black and has been passing as a white, Jewish man for over 40 years.

At 71, Coleman has found a renewed interest in life post-incident in the relationship he's been having with 34-year-old Faunia, a janitor at the university who lives at a dairy farm, milking the cows to pay for her rent. Damaged by a disastrous relationship with her ex-husband, who has severe PTSD after returning home from Vietnam, Faunia is also coping with the tragic losses of her two children who died in a fire.

No one escapes untouched in Roth's world, characters are flawed, ashamed, damaged, destroyed, suffer physically, mentally, anguish over all kinds of things, and yet, in this novel it all works. At first, I thought he really didn't like women, when I read that Faunia was molested, illiterate and beaten, I did roll my eyes a little -- but then as you go deeper in the novel, she's actually one of the stronger characters. Sure she makes up lies to get through the day, but who doesn't. And sure she hasn't had a very nice life, but she also doesn't make excuses for herself. Regardless, their relationship seems almost redemptive in a way, for both of them. Which means, of course, SPOILER, that drastic, awful things must happen.

The narrative structure of the novel is simple -- a writer tells the story of Coleman's life, so close sometimes that we forget he's even there -- and that leaves way for Roth's complex and rich sentences to pull you deeply into the lives of these characters. It's an effective, literary novel, one that rewards the reader by the quality of the writing and not just simply by the essence of the story, if that makes sense. All in all, the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list didn't let me down this time. But Roth's still one-for-one: I'm still not convinced he's entirely an author for me.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

#60 - Long Past Stopping

When the US presented this book at conference a world and a half ago, I was totally taken with the cover. The idea that the son of Jack Canfield, the author of those (ridiculous?) Chicken Soup for the Soul books, became a heroin addict and lived to tell the tale was intriguing. I did two things I never do: 1) judged a book by its cover and 2) picked up the book solely based on the fact that its blurb intrigued me. And trust me when I say I've got some issues with a book blurb. So much so that I rarely read them and almost never pick up the book because of them.

Annnywaaay. Oran Canfield's roughly my age but we've had two very different lives. First of all, he grew up with a fiercely intelligent mother (that's not so different from me) who pretty much kept him outside of your typical societal norms. He was raised by libertarians, went to an anarchist boarding school, joined the circus for a while (and competed as a juggler), and was often left with individuals who had questionable parenting skills yet nonetheless took part in forming him as he grew older. Secondly, his father left the family when he was very young and before his brother, Kyle, was born. Lastly, there's that whole heroin addict situation. Oh, and then there's the whole his dad became a multi-millionaire thingy too.

His memoir, Long Past Stopping, not unlike Dry by Augusten Burroughs, presents addiction in a harrowing yet utterly matter-of-fact way which makes it impossible not to get pulled into his story. There's irony in how addictive these kinds of memoirs are -- how easy it is to just keep reading as the hero (or heroine) moves from fix to fix. Gets themselves deeper and deeper into the black hole when they'd much rather be with that great girl that's finally showing them the time of day. Also, it might just be me, but it's so much easier to read addiction stories than it is to watch them (like say Intervention). There's a level of separateness once you know the author's gone through it and come out the other side. Also, Canfield's a survivor. He doesn't set out to get hooked on heroin. In fact, his introduction to the drug seems innocent rather than ominous, and the practical nature of how he starts shooting (he's simply wasting too much of the drug by smoking it) seems almost blase when you read it.

The tone of this book is consistently infused with his infectious, intelligent sense of humour. And while the writing might not be Nobel-prize worthy (I have to admit I felt the dialogue was particularly weak), it's impossible not to be interested in this book from start to finish. I'm willing to forgive things that I don't normally (like weak dialogue) when it comes to this book (because, let's face it, I'm a snob) primarily because the story itself, his life, is just so damn fascinating. And I'm willing to bet anyone else who picks up this book will end up with a Totally Inappropriate Crush on its author too. Just try it and see if you can put it down after browsing a few chapters. The structure of the book is smart too -- it vacillates between his childhood and his adulthood in a way that breaks up the more dramatic, traumatic moments, and it's certainly a relief when he finally finds his way off the junk.

Never say I don't use my power for good. Here's a quirky and fun road trip guest blog post he wrote for us over on The Savvy Reader. And to get a sense of his sense of humour, watch this video.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Where Does The Time Go?

There's a line in one of my (currently) favourite songs by The Raconteurs: "It's been a wasted, worried year." Kind of fitting, I think, for the last twelve or fourteen months. Usually it's my birthday that sends me into a fit of introspection -- but as I'm well passed my birthday and it was hell bent on almost-killing me this year, I've been spending the last few weeks thinking about what on earth I'm doing with my life. Ever since my mom died just over a year ago, it's as if my life was physically holding me back -- if that makes any sense. For every step I'd take forward, my own body would push me back, culminating in the "episode" from the summer with my appendix.

Like bits of shrapnel left behind, all of the stuff that's happened over the last year has finally started to work its way out. At least I feel that way. I feel lighter, and not just because I've lost a bunch of weight, but also because the sheer force of all that came down to rest upon my shoulders wasn't terrible. It was awful, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't wish this year on my worst enemy, but it's taught me a lot, and if you can take those lessons and move them into a more positive space, then it's not a complete mess, right?

Oh, how I wish that things turned out differently. I wish that a lot. But there are so many parts to my life that I don't control, and now that the disease seems back in remission for what feels like the umpteenth time, maybe what I need to do now is appreciate how much feeling healthy contributes to a better outlook on life. Yesterday, I walked halfway home and met my RRHB along the way (he was driving). I wasn't tired. I wasn't grumpy. I wasn't exhausted. The day hadn't pulled the life out of me teeth first. And it's easy to be mad at life. It's easy to hate your job, your station, your advantages, your disadvantages, your face, your legs, your grey hair, but it's another to stop for a moment, plugged into the iPod, enjoying the crisp air and the onset of my most-hated season, winter.

Anyway. I'm going to try to post more often. But holy crap, life is busy at the moment.

#59 - The Year of The Flood

Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood was a slow burn kind of book for me. It took me ages to read, I think I finished five other novels while I was reading this one, but that's not a comment on how much I enjoyed this book. A companion piece to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is a wholly satisfying story about a world hit by a waterless flood, and those people within who survive. I may be wrong, but I'd classify the book as speculative fiction -- it takes place just far enough in the future to make you second guess how we're living our lives and treating the earth, but it's familiar enough not to seem too out there (if that makes any sense).

The novel moves back and forth between life pre- and post-flood. For a time, the main characters, Toby and Ren, one older, one younger, despite the different ways they arrived, live together in the Gardeners commune, where traditional religion that we'd recognize as Western in its influence mixes with holistic approaches to health, the earth, and life. The Gardeners, lead by Adams and Eves, don't put chemicals in their bodies, they eat food that they grow, and many of them survive the waterless flood because of these skills.

At first, Toby resists the world of the Gardeners. She's survived this long by going underground, as dangerous as it is, and becoming a part of a community wasn't something she thought she needed to do. But slowly, as her skills as a naturalist, a healer, a beekeeper both evolve and are discovered, it's apparent she's found a place where she can belong -- whether or not she wants to become Eve Six.

Ren, however, doesn't have it so easy. As a young girl, her mother drags her away from her father's house -- safely ensconced in the highly programmed, chemical world -- as a result of an affair she has with one of the key Gardener men. She's a flake, there's no getting around it, and when the relationship goes sour, Ren's dragged back into the sterile world of her father's people, sent off to university at Martha Graham, and then out into the workforce, perhaps not in the job she would have once imagined for herself in high school. High school and the Gardeners define Ren (oh how this happens for so many people, ahem) and without these key people in her life, she's a little lost, a little heartbroken (over Jimmy, you'd remember him from the previous book -- Snowman). But both Toby and Ren are survivors and their stories, when woven together, are equally compelling.

There's nothing to do but be in awe of Atwood's imagination. But if I were to make one slight criticism -- I wasn't as inspired by the "poems" that started off each of the Gardener sections -- they seemed a bit contrived to me, but then, when you look through a hymn book in church, the sentiment is much the same, so perhaps I should just take them at face value. It's a sad book, a book that makes you appreciate the fact that you can still put a seed in the ground and have it grow into a plant that could feed you, the birds, and the butterflies. And one that perhaps sets a new standard for saint-like worship of unconventional heroes, especially those that survive.

READING CHALLENGES: The Year of the Flood is my third book in this year's Canadian Book Challenge.